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Master Class: The history, literary archetypes & motifs laced throughout the genre of trap&B

Da’Shan Smith

 // May 24, 2018

Artist // YouTube

With Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys spending a third consecutive week at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, it’s safe to say that trap&B has become one of the most dominant contemporary subgenres of American music in the past decade.

Often regarded by interweb critics as “garbage,” trap has arguably permeated mainstream culture full force — wrapping its tendrils around every musical genre imaginable. Although traditional layerings of R&B no longer seem like the go-to on pop and urban radio formats, hip-hop’s leading enforcer has revitalized it, becoming a key soundtrack for Millennials and Generation Z. While trap&B often exhibits repetitive beats matched by laxed vocals and oft-incoherent lyricism, the subgenre has developed into one that subtly displays the story-telling genius of literary greats — exemplifying their motifs, character archetypes, and moral lessons.

Welcome to REVOLT’s master class on trap&B.

This lesson starts with Kanye West and his fourth studio album 808s & Heartbreak. Needing to recover from the tragic death of his mother Donda and a broken engagement from his fiancée Alexis Phifer, Kanye recorded the LP during secluded sessions on Hawaii (hence Honolulu’s 808 area code). His musical genius would match that of Victor Frankenstein, the main character of Mary Shelley’s 1818 fictional novel The Modern Prometheus a.k.a Frankenstein. Through his alchemy, West invented his own misunderstood Frankenstein Monster: the subgenre of trap&B.

The sound of Heartbreak was comprised through the primary usage of a Roland TR-808 drum machine and West’s auto-tuned, rap-singing vocals. The album would include the No. 3-peaking single “Love Lockdown” and No. 2-reaching “Heartless.” On these cuts — also including “Paranoid,” “Say You Will,” and the Kid Cudi-featuring “Welcome To Heartbreak” — West displayed characteristics of the Byronic Hero.

The Byronic Hero is a tragically flawed male literary archetype based on the 18th century English poet Lord George Byron. This anti-hero is romantically hedonistic, letting his pride get in the way of his relationships. 808s & Heartbreak also includes a guest appearance from Lil Wayne (“See You In My Nightmares”) who had previously displayed this smug behavior on the No. 1 hit “Lollipop.”

As 808s & Heartbreak faced polarizing first-impression criticisms that any Kanye West record endures, it would eventually revolutionize and inspire the modern soundscape. The most notable example of that would be Future’s 2012 single “Turn On The Lights,” which reached No. 50 on the Billboard Hot 100, and appeared at No. 14 and 49 on Complex and Pitchfork’s year-end songs lists, respectively. The Mike Will Made-It produced sleeper hit further extended the 808s blueprint with the addition of heavily-flooded hi-hat production. Future’s oft-indecipherable crooning about finding love in a nightclub’s VIP section, gave a presumed hip-hop song its R&B identity, ultimately guiding those wanting a trippy-trappy, rhythm and bluesy, spacey-hit. From that point on, Future Hendrix would continue his Byronic Hero narrative on his history-making, joint released 2017 LPs centered around his musical moniker.

Later in 2012, Future linked up with Rihanna for her Unapologetic single “Loveeeeeee Song.” On the post-modern slow jam, the pair would exhibit back and forth banter akin to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice protagonist Elizabeth Bennett and her Byronic opposite, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Known for her snarky wit, Elizabeth Bennett is regarded as one of literature’s favorite heroines for her defiant demeanor and independence. Throughout her career, Rihanna has more than accomplished a similar feat as the self-proclaimed Bad Gal — Unapologetic being the trap&B-filled springboard to initiate the attitude. We could even tie in her role as the leading ingenue of Kanye West’s “Paranoid” music video during her Rated R-era as an early indicator.

On Unapologetic, Rihanna also displays the behavior of a Trap Queen who craves autonomy, wealth, love, and power. Similar to Emma of Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 French novel Madame Bovary, she takes on an anti-heroine role with the help of trap-styled EDM, giving her a new worldly outlook. Rihanna conquers fashion in “Phresh Out The Runway;” pushes ecstasy in “Numb,” and templates a madame stripper archetype on “Pour It Up.” Her next album, ANTi, would continue this narrative but with the spirit of Lucy Graham from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1862 novel Lady Audley’s Secret. Here, she’s just as “savage” with men, like the notorious literary femme fatale, on cuts such as “Needed Me.”

The best follow-up to Unapologetic would be Beyoncé’s self-titled, surprise visual album, which was released a year after. Here, we witness Queen Bey rapping about her nickname “Yoncé” and playing the role of a “gangster wife” matriarch in “Drunk In Love.” On the LP, she embodies a female warrior archetype — a.k.a. an Amazon (like Wonder Woman or Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games series) — who celebrates feminism on “*Flawless,” while warning she’s “No Angel.” That narrative is continued on 2016’s Lemonade, where she’s a bit more vengeful on “Sorry” and “Formation,” with “6 Inch” taking a few cues from Rih’s “Pour It Up.”

Through these aforementioned pioneers of trap&B, the overall theme of “love and hustle” (a spin on the classic 2000 film, Love & Basketball) became prominent on radio. R&B is the genre of passion and heartbreak, while trap music portrays hardships in streetlife, drug-trading, and inner-city poverty. The marriage of both genres revolve around surviving the ups and downs of romance, while also striving to obtain riches in order to get out of misfortunate circumstances. Someone who tackled these themes as best as mainstream radio could is Fetty Wap, as he laid out love and hustling on 2015’s “Trap Queen,” and further cemented those ideologies on “Again” and “My Way.”

The tragic views on adoration from Kanye, Future, and Lil Wayne would later on be exhibited by the likes of Post Malone, PNB Rock, Drake, Travis Scott, Ty Dolla $ign, and 6lack — who all brag about their stacks and god complexes, but can’t seem to leave their exes alone, while constantly battling their egos. Bryson Tiller would make one of the best impressions — offering his own trap&B take of Dante’s Inferno with his 2015 debut TRAPSOUL.

On the opposite end, Tink, Jhené Aiko, Alina Baraz, and Tinashe uniquely replicate the femme fatales and Amazon heroines Rihanna and Beyoncé set forth. The airy synthesizers and drums on Kehlani’s SweetSexySavage and Sevyn Streeter’s Girl Disrupted really hone in on a trap&B superwoman aesthetic, while SZA and Travis Scott’s linkage on “Love Galore,” as well as Normani and Khalid’s on “Love Lies,” best replicate the romantic foil dilemma first exhibited on “Loveeeeeee Song.”

Throughout the years, trap&B has adopted the language of its hip-hop parent. Some of the best examples in giving a crash course on the vernacular and lexicon would be Mila J’s “Move” and “Dirt” as these songs about moving on from a playboy are full of basketball references (“ballin like Jordan,” “Kyrie Irv with the moves”) and car allusions (“skrt, skrt,” “drop top with the roof gone”). Trey Songz’s “Foreign” glorifies luxury whips and exotic women from overseas. Mariah Carey asserts the notion of a jilted admirer being “Thirsty” for attention. With the addition of features from trap rappers on other songs — such as Offset’s role on Tinashe’s “No Drama” and Cardi B’s on Jennifer Lopez’s Nikes-endorsing and money-minded “Dinero” — this language has now become second nature in R&B.

Literary thoughts aside, trap and its R&B offspring have built a strong presence by referencing pop culture (or making it), while also sampling classic black music references. Rihanna popularized the saying “Bitch Better Have My Money,” which would eventually be used as a protest chant by HBCU students. Beyoncé created an anthem based on her love of “7/11” slurpees. Justine Skye examined falling head over heels in “Love Song” by interpolating Lenny Williams’s signature “oh” riffs from his 70s jaunt “Cause I Love You.” Travis Scott’s “beibs in the trap” has Nav sounding as if he is Justin Bieber tackling the genre.


Listen to REVOLT's A Master Class on Trap&B on Spotify


Speaking of Bieber, even the world of pop has experienced an usurp of trap&B — for him, those cuts include “No Sense” and “I’ll Show You.” Katy Perry would be the first to play a temptress when her 2013 single “Dark Horse” featuring Juicy J went No. 1. Other artists to join in on the fun included Niykee Heaton, Halsey, Demi Lovato, and Taylor Swift — who all play seductive damsels in the world of trap-pop’n’B. Recently, Christina Aguilera linked up with 2 Chainz and Ty Dolla $ign on the Kanye-produced banger “Accelerate.”

Meanwhile, Adult R&B radio formats have also been graced by trap influences. While the diction is a bit more clear and the vocal performances taken a bit more seriously, the same themes persist. Mary J. Blige fights through her divorce on “Thick of It” and vows to “Glow Up” on her album Strength of A Woman. Tank tackles sex head-on with his smash “When We.” Ledisi gets soulful-trap on “High,” as did Chrisette Michele on “Steady.” But we can’t forget to mention how Erykah Badu lead the way with 2015’s neo-trapsoul cut “Phone Down.”

Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys No. 1 jaunt “Rockstar” best embodies the state trap&B now finds itself: The genre has transformed into the new pop. As R&B seems to be slowly finding its way back to the forefront of the mainstream music scene, trap has (in many ways) given it new legs to walk on — just as hip-hop collabs did in the aughts, electro-pop did in the late 90s, and New Jack Swing in the 80s. The slow building rise to success for trap&B may be shocking for some, but its current fate had been articulated the whole time.


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